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Culture » Get Out

Camping in Killyon Canyon

Spending a night out in our big backyard


  • Nate Geesaman

I climb the hill slowly. It’s not steep, but the pack on my back—full of overnight gear and water—though not heavy, gives me an excuse to take my time. I’m following an informal trail. It’s the kind made by animals, and just as it wends to the top of the hill, it slowly fades, disappearing into a dry field.

I can tell the earth under my feet has been desperate for rain. Not an hour ago, I had all but canceled my trip as a thunderstorm let loose over the valley. But, like most storms in Utah, it quickly passed, and I found myself as desperate for the mountains as they were for water. So I went.

We are lucky to live in a state where great camping destinations—from desert to mountains—are easily within a four-hour or less drive from the city. But it has struck me recently that there is also space for such weekend trips right here in my backyard. From the highest peaks in the Wasatch, look north and east; the mountains continue seemingly endlessly, unmarred by towns or cities, all the way to Wyoming and beyond. Why not, I asked myself, spend a weekend—or even just a night—out there?

Killyon Canyon was a natural choice for an overnight trip—close by and little-used, with plenty of space to roam. Late summer and early fall is the perfect time to come here, when the trails’ red clay soil is hard and dry instead of slick and treacherous with the snowmelt or rain.

Not prepared to face the main trail so soon after a downpour, I hiked up out of Killyon’s ravine into the slopes of the foothills. Here, patches of meadow made of mule’s ears and grass are stitched along their boarders by scrub oak, their branches low and dense and almost impossible to move through. I looked for an opening in the oak bramble and picked my way upward. The soil under my feet was solid. The plants held the rain as if it were only dew. The air caught the scent of rain-soaked dirt. The only sound came from brittle leaves underfoot.

Killyon Canyon likely earned its name from its first pioneer resident, John Killian, who can be tracked in Mormon history all the way back to the pre-Salt Lake City days when converts gathered in Far West, Mo. Mormons were none too popular during that time, and it is believed that Killian relocated to Emigration Canyon on assignment from Missouri’s Caldwell Militia to protect the roads into the valley from invasion. Later, Killian kept a ranch and owned timber rights in the area.

From atop the ridge, I look out over Killyon’s Canyon, down toward Emigration. It’s hard for me to imagine that, not long ago, it was slated to become a gated subdivision. Where virgin, old-growth fir trees grow in the crevassed ravines, there would have been stone houses; the clear streams where native cutthroat trout swim would have been pushed underground and paved over with driveways. But, in 2010, with support from the state and the city, Utah Open Lands, along with some altruistic landowners and an anonymous donor, managed to set aside 265 acres of Killyon Canyon for preservation and public access. I, for one, will show my gratitude for this act tonight with a simple camping trip.

From where I stand on the ridge, its gentle line runs upward and to the east. I follow it. The light is waning as I scout a good flat place to set up a tent. There are many options. Pushing through some oak, I freeze. A hornet nest the size of a large grapefruit dangles just feet from my bare knees. There is no movement from the hive. Like the meadow grass and flowers on this hill, the hive appears dormant, already shifting into fall, but I don’t want to find out for sure—I’m allergic to wasp venom. I back out and look for another way through to the place where I will rest for the night.